Global Policy Forum

Implications of the Iraqi National Elections


By Erich Marquardt

Power and Interest News Report
February 16, 2005

After analyzing the results of Iraq's national elections, it is clear that the outcome is not what the Bush administration had intended during its planning of the March 2003 invasion that toppled the government of President Saddam Hussein. When Iraqis went to the polls on January 30, 48 percent cast their ballots for the United Iraqi Alliance (U.I.A.), the party that represented the country's long-oppressed Shi'a majority. This result will give U.I.A. control of about half the seats in the 275-member National Assembly. The remaining seats will be awarded to the other political parties, primarily the Kurdistan Alliance and the secular-oriented Iraqi List, led by U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

The pivotal win for Iraq's Shi'a majority -- a victory that was expected -- is a worrying development for the United States since it will likely result in an improvement of relations between Iraq and Iran, two long-time antagonists that each received support from the United States at one time due to Washington's interests in preventing any one Middle Eastern state from gaining enough power in the region to make a run for regional hegemony. The path toward regional hegemony in a region as rich with oil and gas reserves would create dangerous instability and develop into a situation where the Middle Eastern hegemon would be able to extract concessions from Western powers in exchange for energy supplies.

Washington's Perceived Interests in Invading Iraq

Iraq has long posed a problem to U.S. and Western interests. During the leadership of Saddam, Iraq received generous political, economic and military support from the United States. This support grew out of Washington's concern over the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Due to the nature of Iran's revolution -- which was led by Ayatollah Khomeini and was religiously-inspired, having as a central pillar the goal of spreading Islamic revolution elsewhere -- the United States wanted to prevent Iran from defeating Iraq during the large-scale Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

Yet, after the war, Saddam's regime sought to expand its territory and power in the Middle East. In 1990, Baghdad made a grab at the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait, invading it under the justification that it had been part of the Ottoman Empire subject to Iraqi suzerainty and that, therefore, its territory should be under Baghdad's control. Yet, Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait City sounded alarms in Washington since the attack increased Baghdad's regional power and threat capability. If the invasion were allowed to stand, Baghdad would have been more capable at becoming a regional hegemon and, therefore, having the ability to threaten the flow of oil and gas to the West.

Washington built a coalition through the United Nations and successfully repelled Iraqi troops back to Baghdad. Washington, with the help of its allies, later instituted various measures -- such as no-fly zones -- to contain Baghdad and keep its power in a state of weakness. The Clinton administration, which controlled the White House from 1993 through 2000, was resigned to containing the Iraqi regime, occasionally targeting key Iraqi facilities and troop formations with missiles and bombs, yet made no serious attempts to remove the Iraqi government from power.

With the White House falling under the control of the Bush administration in January 2001, U.S. policy towards Iraq dramatically changed. The Bush administration saw Saddam's regime as a liability and as an opportunity. It was a liability because Washington could not trust that a Baghdad free from U.S. military oversight would remain within its borders and not make challenges toward tilting the regional balance of power. Furthermore, Baghdad's one-time project to acquire a nuclear deterrent, in addition to chemical and biological weapons, raised concern that if the U.S.-enforced sanctions regime were to end, or if the U.S. military ceased its air patrols, Saddam's government would work to reacquire nuclear weapons and use those weapons to push for regional hegemony. Indeed, there was no end in sight to this dilemma, since upon the death of Saddam it was predicted that either his sons, or individuals closely aligned with Saddam's interests, would take power.

In addition to the established understanding of the leadership in Baghdad being a liability, neoconservative thinkers within the Bush administration portrayed Iraq as a potential opportunity. These leaders argued that Saddam had alienated much of the country through his brutal and dictatorial rule, especially the majority Shi'a and minority Kurdish populations. Upon a U.S. invasion of Iraq, these analysts asserted, the majority of Iraq's population would welcome U.S. troops and consider the United States to be the liberators of Baghdad.

Indeed, in September 2003, six months after the U.S. invasion was executed, when questioned by the U.S. House Armed Services Committee about an increase in insurgent activity in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld downplayed the threat, saying, "I think these people [attacking coalition forces] are the last remnants of a dying cause." He said U.S. forces "have the sympathy of the population, not the surviving elements of the Ba'athist regime."

Due to the perceived feasibility of a relatively painless invasion and subsequent occupation, it was proposed that an invasion of Iraq would be in the interests of the United States. In addition to removing the liability of Saddam and his Ba'ath Party, the United States would likely be able to support a new democratic government in Baghdad that would work with the United States to secure their mutual interests: internal and regional stability, oil and gas exploration, and establishing Iraq as a bridgehead against recognized foes in the region, primarily Iran and Syria.

The Bush administration thought that its invasion and liberation would result in a U.S.-friendly government in Baghdad, one that Washington could assist to heal the sectarian rifts within Iraqi society, such as the historical conflict between the country's Sunni Arabs, Shi'a Arabs and Sunni Kurds. The new government in Baghdad would no longer hold the territorial aspirations of Saddam, helping to secure a future of regional stability, important in an area that contains vast quantities of oil and natural gas. Furthermore, with the removal of Saddam, the U.N. sanctions regime would end and multinational companies would be able to invest in the country. The Bush administration saw such investment as a win-win situation for both the United States and Iraq: U.S. companies would be able to begin and expand operations, which would assist the U.S. economy, while Iraqis would benefit from the capital earned on increased production of oil and natural gas made possible through U.S. and Western technology.

The final major gain to U.S. interests brought through an invasion would be to transform Iraq into a bridgehead against enemies of U.S. designs, challengers that also had historical tensions with Iraq. Washington hoped that the new government in Iraq would work with the United States to contain the power of Iran, a country that fought a brutal war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 and one that has funded organizations, such as Hezbollah, that continue to take actions against U.S. interests. Iran, too, is a state that is developing the technology that will give it the knowledge necessary to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Syria, which sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, in addition to siding against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, has also supported such groups as Hezbollah, along with threatening the security of Israel, a major U.S. ally in the region that also collaborates with Washington to prevent any Middle Eastern state from gaining too much power.

According to this projected scenario, it is clear that U.S. interests would be best served by an invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athist leadership. However, there were major flaws with this theory. For one, in order for the theory to come to fruition, it was largely dependent on best-case scenarios. When many of these best-case scenarios failed to materialize, such as the assumption that no local insurgency would form to counter U.S. occupation efforts, the Bush administration's plans in Iraq quickly unraveled and have resulted in the precarious situation that now exists in the country and one that may actually harm U.S. long-term interests.

Major Setbacks to U.S. Plans

The initial setback to U.S. plans, and the most devastating one, was the formation of a local insurgency that began to attack U.S.-led troops. In the months after the completion of major combat operations, U.S.-led forces saw a dramatic escalation of insurgent activity. Thought to be emanating from the disenfranchised Sunni Arab minority, and complemented by more Islamist elements that find affinity with al-Qaeda's ideology, the insurgency has now spiraled into a force that numbers in the thousands; indeed, its growing size has kept Washington from reducing its troop presence in the country, resulting in the overextension of the American military.

The conflict raging between insurgents and U.S.-led forces created a poor security climate in the country. Insurgent activity slowed the ability of U.S.-led forces to train indigenous police and security personnel capable of providing protection. In the absence of adequate polices forces, the population saw a rise in criminal violence, such as robberies, rapes and murders. The insurgent attacks on oil pipelines, electricity conduits, and other essential infrastructure deprived the Iraqi population of basic social services.

The poor security climate in Iraq, and the lack of essential social services, was largely blamed on the U.S.-led occupation. Unable to count on protection from the primary power source within the country, Iraqis had to rely on local support bases. Iraqis identified increasingly with their sectarian leaders, rather than their national ones; their national leaders were considered incompetent and unrepresentative of the country. This development explained the widespread support for Shi'a leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who led a brief insurrection against U.S.-led troops until it was finally settled by the more prominent and influential members of the Shi'a community.

The lack of confidence in the United States and, by implication, the more U.S.-oriented Iraqi political parties, greatly affected the January 30 general elections. The Iraqi List party, led by U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, made a poor showing in the elections, receiving only 13.7 percent of the national vote despite a major media campaign. The Iraqi List party espouses secularism and is most closely aligned with the United States; indeed, Allawi was given the honor of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress in September 2004. He was also responsible for the suppression of al-Sadr's uprising in the Shi'a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Allawi was involved in approving the heavy U.S.-organized assaults on the Sunni Arab strongholds of Fallujah and Samarra. These actions by Allawi were not popular among the Iraqi population and resulted in much of the popular anger that is now directed toward the United States.

Instead, the bulk of the votes went to the U.I.A., a Shi'a clergy-supported party with the tacit approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent Shi'a leader in Iraq. The U.I.A. won 48 percent of the nationwide votes, earning them control of about half the seats in the 275-member National Assembly. This will ensure predominant Shi'a influence in the construction of Iraq's constitution and all government dealings. The U.I.A. is expected to appoint one of its own as prime minister, the country's most powerful political position. While the U.I.A. will not be able to dominate Iraq -- many important bureaucratic and policy decisions rely on a two-thirds majority vote by the National Assembly, requiring the formation of coalitions -- it will be able to greatly influence the affairs of the country.

Implications of Predominant Shi'a Influence

Increased influence by the U.I.A. and Iraq's Shi'a community will likely affect U.S. interests negatively. Within Islam, the Shi'a share a history of persecution by the more prevalent Sunni majority. Even within Iraq's modern history, the Shi'a were oppressed for decades by the dominant Sunni Arab establishment. However, to Iraq's east lies Iran, a Shi'a led power that has incorporated clergy rule into its government structure. Because of this connection, and in light of the historical conflict between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, it can be expected that an Iraq led by a Shi'a majority will see relations improve with neighboring Iran.

Looking past the shared sense of history, many members of U.I.A. spent years and even decades of exile in Iran, persecuted by Saddam's security apparatus. Many members of the various Shi'a militias received training and military supplies from Iran. Al-Sistani is of Iranian origin, and the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (S.C.I.R.I.), one of the major parties involved in the U.I.A., is an avid supporter of Iran, especially considering that he lived in exile in the country for almost two decades and has, in the past, been the recipient of significant funding from Tehran. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim told United Press International on January 27, "Iran has helped the whole Iraqi nation for two decades. We believe that with regard to the historical, cultural, religious and political commonalities that exist between the two nations, the relations between Iran and Iraq will be based on friendship, mutual respect, and noninterference in each other's affairs."

Despite these religious bonds, Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a share many points of contention. For one, Iranian Shi'a are Persian, whereas Iraqi Shi'a are Arab. During the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, Iraqi Shi'a fought on the side of Iraq and Iranian Shi'a fought on the side of Iran. Also, the U.I.A. plans on wielding its own power and it is not in the party's interest to submit to Iran. That being said, however, it can be expected that Baghdad will join Tehran on many issues, varying from the United States' role in the Middle East to decisions on oil output. Most importantly, it is unlikely that the U.I.A. will view Iran in the same negative light as does the U.S.; the failure to support the Bush administration's hard-line policy on Iran will leave one of the central objectives of the U.S. invasion unfulfilled.

Additionally, the U.I.A. is also expected to push for a larger role of Islam in the Iraqi constitution and in Iraqi society as a whole. Recognizing that the institution of Islamic law in the country would be resisted by Iraq's minority political parties, U.I.A. may push for the institution of Islamic law in certain provinces or municipalities. The United States, which believes secularism to be more aligned with its interests, would prefer this development not occur, since it could create religious radicals who seek to join Iran in exporting Shi'ism abroad, or in supporting militant religious organizations such as Hezbollah.

The Post-Election Role for U.S. Troops

Due to the lasting nature of the insurgency, U.S. troops will remain in the country until Washington can assess what impact the elections have had on the insurgency. At first glance, however, it appears that the elections will have a limited impact. For instance, the Sunni Arab party led by present interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, known as The Iraqis party, won only 1.8 percent of the national votes, giving it about five seats in the National Assembly. This poor representation disenfranchises the Sunni Arab community and will do nothing to quell their fears that they will have little influence in the new Iraqi government.

The explanation behind such poor representation is that the Sunni Arabs, by and large, boycotted the polls, explaining why The Iraqis and the Iraqi List received so little support. For example, in the predominately Sunni Arab province of Anbar, less than 14,000 Iraqis voted, which only amounted to two percent of those eligible. This decision showed how many Sunni Arabs see violence as the only effective answer to the grim political future they face.

Therefore, confronted with a sustained insurgency, the United States is now hoping to create some semblance of stable government in Iraq, even if that government takes a form contrary to what the U.S. originally intended or hoped for. In addition to creating a stable government, the U.S. is rapidly working on training indigenous security personnel to handle policing and military tasks. The U.S. will only be able to continue its current troop commitment to Iraq for so long, since its military force is overextended and the recent bold actions of Iran and North Korea have highlighted how other states perceive the U.S. as weaker and less able to react to a changing power balance due to its costly invasion and occupation in the Middle East.


The major reasons behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq derived from Saddam's regime being a liability to U.S. and Western interests, in addition to the neoconservative vision of Iraq as an opportunity to foster long-term internal stability in Iraq and the region as a whole, to expand oil and gas exploration projects that would benefit the Iraqi population along with American and multinational energy companies, and the opportunity to turn Iraq into a bridgehead against established foes in the region, primarily Iran and Syria.

Yet, the United States ran into an immediate snag, and that was the development of a local insurgency which has had a strong enough impact to prevent U.S.-led forces from fostering stability. The continued failure to quell the insurgency has unraveled the bulk of the Bush administration's goals and has created problems of its own.

Now, with the conclusion of the January 30 elections, Iran stands to gain as a major winner. If the U.I.A. manages to improve relations with Iran, the United States may see the bulk of its objectives in Iraq go unfulfilled. More significantly, Washington could find itself sitting in a poorer strategic position relative to where it sat when it pursued its policy of containment.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Government
More Information on Oil in Iraq
More Information on US Military Expansion and Intervention


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